What is Abandoned Property?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Abandoned property is an asset which an owner appears to have abandoned. Many regions have abandoned property laws which define the amount of time an asset must be left with no activity before it is considered abandoned. As a general rule, abandoned property becomes the property of the government or the person who finds it, although there are sometimes measures in place which allow people to take possession of it. Because rules vary so widely, it is advisable to consult a lawyer before assuming that property is abandoned.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

In many regions, real estate is specifically excluded from abandoned property laws. Property owners cannot abandon interest in real property. This is designed to prevent situations such as people opting to leave property without providing maintenance; in these instances, the government can pursue the owner of record to collect property taxes, to pay for demolition, and to handle other costs associated with the property. Abandoned property such as aircraft and vessels may also be automatically remanded to the state, unlike other types of abandoned property which can become the property of the finder if the finder files documentation.

For financial assets such as bank accounts, contents of safe deposit boxes, and so forth, generally institutions are required to turn such assets over to the state after a set period of inactivity. The state keeps the assets and their documentation, and may make an effort to find the owner. After a set period of time has elapsed, ownership of the property can revert to the government, and it can decide what to do.

A classic example of a situation in which abandoned property can be found happens when people move out of their homes. Commonly, personal property left behind is treated as abandoned property, and the landlord has the right to dispose of it. Some people opt to leave property they do not want to deal with behind, or may be forced to abandon property because they are moving in a hurry. Landlords may be entitled to withhold part of the deposit to compensate for handling the abandoned personal property.

Citizens may be interested to note that in some areas, governments estimate that as much as 10% of the population may have unclaimed abandoned property. Government agencies which process abandoned property have online databases which people can search to see if they are entitled to any property held in the system, and these systems also usually allow people to file claims quickly. While it might seem odd to have assets one does not know about, people can and do forget about things, and sometimes an unclaimed property database can have a pleasant surprise.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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